EXCERPTS: 1883-1926

From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with a special emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)


(1864) To work for the people, – that is the great and urgent necessity.

The human mind – an important thing to say at this minute – has a greater need of the ideal even than of the real.

It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live. Now, do you wish to realize the difference? Animals exist, man lives.

To live, is to understand. To live, is to smile at the present, to look toward posterity over the wall. To live, is to have in one’s self a balance, and to weigh in it the good and evil. To live, is to have justice, truth, reason, devotion, probity, sincerity, common-sense, right, and duty nailed to the heart. To live, is to know what one is worth, what one can do and should do. Life is conscience. Cato would not rise before Ptolemy. Cato lived.

Literature is the secretion of civilization, poetry of the ideal. That is why literature is one of the wants of societies. That is why poetry is a hunger of the soul. That is why poets are the first instructors of the people…(257).

We have just said, “Literature is the secretion of civilization.” Do you doubt it? Open the first statistics you come across.

Here is one which we find under our hand: Bagne de Toulon, 1862. Three thousand and ten prisoners. Of these three thousand and ten convicts, forty know a little more than to read and write, two hundred and eighty-seven know how to read and write, nine hundred and four read badly and write badly, seventeen hundred and seventy-nine know neither how to read nor write…(258).

The transformation of the crowd into the people, – profound labour! It is to this labour that the men called socialists have devoted themselves during the last forty years. The author of this book, however insignificant he may be, is one of the oldest in the labour; “Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné” dates from 1828, and “Claude Gueux” from 1834. He claims his place among these philosophers because it is a place of persecution. A certain hatred of socialism, very blind, but very general, has been at work most bitterly among the influential classes. (Classes, then, are still in existence?) Let it not be forgotten, socialism, true socialism, has for its end the elevation of the masses to the civic dignity, and therefore its principal care is for moral and intellectual cultivation. The first hunger is ignorance; socialism wishes then, above all, to instruct. That does not hinder socialism from being calumniated, and socialists from being denounced. To most of the infuriated, trembling cowards who have their say at the present moment, these reformers are public enemies. They are guilty of everything that has gone wrong…(259).

The democratic idea, the new bridge of civilization, undergoes at this moment the formidable trial of overweight. Every other idea would certainly give way under the load that it is made to bear. Democracy proves its solidity by the absurdities that are heaped on, without shaking it. It must resist everything that people choose to place on it. At this moment they try to make it carry despotism…(260).

That history has to be re-made is evident. Up to the present time, it has been nearly always written from the miserable point of view of accomplished fact; it is time to write from the point of view of principle, – and that, under penalty of nullity…(347).

– Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare


(1883) “You may well think I am not here to criticize any special school of art or artists, or to plead for any special style, or to give you any instructions, however general, as to the practice of the arts. Rather I want to take counsel with you as to what hindrances may lie in the way towards making art what it should be, a help and solace to the daily life of all men…. Since I am a member of a Socialist propaganda I earnestly beg those of you who agree with me to help us actively, with your time and your talents if you can, but if not, at least with your money, as you can…. Help us now, you whom the fortune of your birth has helped to make wise and refined; and as you help us in our work-a-day business toward the success of the cause, instill into us your superior wisdom, your superior refinement, and you in your turn may be helped by the courage and hope of those who are not so completely wise and refined. Remember we have but one weapon against that terrible organization of selfishness which we attack, and that weapon is Union” (108-127). 


–William Morris, On Art and Socialism



(1885) “It is always bad for an author to be infatuated with his hero, and it seems to me that in this case [Minna Kautsky’s novel Old and New] you have given way somewhat to this weakness… I am not at all an opponent of tendentious poetry as such. The father of tragedy, Aeschylus, and the father of comedy, Aristophanes, were both decidedly tendentious poets, just as were Dante and Cervantes; and the main merit of Schiller’s Craft and Loves is that it is the first German political propaganda drama. The modern Russians and Norwegians, who are writing splendid novels, are all tendentious. But I think that the bias [thesis] should flow by itself from the situation and action, without particular indications [explicit display], and that the writer is not obliged to obtrude on the reader the future historical solutions of the social conflicts pictured. And especially in our conditions the novel appeals mostly to readers of bourgeois circles, that is, not directly related to us, and therefore a socialist-biased novel fully achieves its purpose, in my view, if by conscientiously describing the real mutual relations, breaking down conventional illusions about them, it shatters the optimism of the bourgeois world, although the author does not offer any definite solutions or does not even line up openly on any particular side…. And in Stefan you showed that you are able to view your heroes with that fine irony which demonstrates the power of the writer over his creation.”


–Frederick Engels, Letter to Minna Kautsky (1885), in Literature and Art [Marx and Engels], 1947 (also excerpted and translated somewhat differently by George Steiner in “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” 1958, in Language and Silence, 1967)



(1888) “I am far from finding fault with you for not having written a point-blank socialist novel, a ‘Tendenzroman’ as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political views of the author. That is not at all what I mean. The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art.”


–Frederick Engels, Letter to Margaret Harkness (excerpted by George Steiner in “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” 1958, in Language and Silence, 1967)



(1898) “This investigation has brought me to the conviction that almost all that our society considers to be art, good art, and the whole of art, far from being real and good art and the whole of art, is not even art at all but only a counterfeit of it…. In our society the difficulty of recognizing real works of art is further increased by the fact that the external quality of the work in false productions is not only no worse, but often better, than in real ones; the counterfeit is often more effective than the real, and its subject more interesting… There is one indubitable sign distinguishing real art from its counterfeit—namely, the infectiousness of art…”


–Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?



(1903) “ ‘The novel must not preach,’ you hear them say. As though it were possible to write a novel without a purpose, even if it is only the purpose to amuse. One is willing to admit that this savors a little of quibbling, for ‘purpose’ and purpose to amuse are two different purposes. But every novel, even the most frivolous, must have some reason for the writing of it, and in that sense must have a ‘purpose’. Every novel must do one of three things—it must tell something, (2) show something, or (3) prove something. Some novels do all three of these; some do only two; all must do at least one…. The third, and what we hold to be the best class, proves something, draws conclusions from a whole congeries of forces, social tendencies, race impulses, devotes itself not to a study of men but of man. In this class falls the novel with the purpose, such as ‘Les Miserables’. And the reason we decide upon this last as the highest form of the novel is because that, though setting a great purpose before it as its task, it nevertheless includes, and is forced to include, both the other classes…. [The novel] may be a great force, that works together with the pulpit and the universities for the good of the people, fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak, that an evil tree is still growing in the midst of the garden, that undoing follows hard upon unrighteousness, that the course of Empire is not yet finished, and that the races of men have yet to work out their destiny in those great and terrible movements that crush and grind and rend asunder the pillars of the houses of the nations” (203-207).


–Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist


(1905) “Literature must become Party literature…. Down with un-partisan littérateurs! Down with the supermen of literature! Literature must become a part of the general cause of the proletariat, ‘a small cog and a small screw’ in the social-democratic mechanism, one and indivisible—a mechanism set in motion by the entire conscious vanguard of the whole working class. Literature must become an integral part of the organized, methodical, and unified labours of the social-democratic Party.”

–Vladimir Lenin, “Party Organization and Party Literature,” in Novaia Jizn


(1924) The book purposes to investigate the whole process of art creation, and to place the art function in relation to the sanity, health and progress of mankind. It will attempt to set up new canons in the arts, overturning many of the standards now accepted. A large part of the world’s art treasures will be taken out to the scrap-heap, and a still larger part transferred from the literature shelves to the history shelves of the world’s library.

Since childhood the writer has lived most of his life in the world’s art. For thirty years he has been studying it consciously, and for twenty-five years he has been shaping in his mind the opinions here recorded; testing and revising them by the art-works which he has produced, and by the stream of other men’s work which has flowed through his mind. His decisions are those of a working artist, one who has been willing to experiment and blunder for himself, but who has also made it his business to know and judge the world’s best achievements.

The conclusion to which he has come is that mankind is today under the spell of utterly false conceptions of what art is and should be; of utterly vicious and perverted standards of beauty and dignity. We list six great art lies now prevailing in the world, which this book will discuss:

Lie Number One: the Art for Art’s Sake lie; the notion that the end of art is in the art work, and that the artist’s sole task is perfection of form. It will be demonstrated that this lie is a defensive mechanism of artists run to seed, and that its prevalence means degeneracy, not merely in art, but in the society where such art appears.

Lie Number Two: the lie of Art Snobbery; the notion that art is something esoteric, for the few, outside the grasp of the masses. It will be demonstrated that with few exceptions of a special nature, great art has always been popular art, and great artists have swayed the people.

Lie Number Three: the lie of Art Tradition; the notion that new artists must follow old models, and learn from the classics how to work. It will be demonstrated that vital artists make their own technique; and that present-day technique is far and away superior to the technique of any art period preceding.

Lie Number Four: the lie of Art Dilettantism; the notion that the purpose of art is entertainment and diversion, an escape from reality. It will be demonstrated that this lie is a product of mental inferiority, and that the true purpose of art is to alter reality.

Lie Number Five: the lie of the Art Pervert; the notion that art has nothing to do with moral questions. It will be demonstrated that all art deals with moral questions; since there are no other questions.

Lie Number Six: the lie of Vested Interest; the notion that art excludes propaganda and has nothing to do with freedom and justice. Meeting that issue without equivocation, we assert:

All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.

As commentary on the above, we add, that when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art.

–Upton Sinclair, Mammonart: An Essay on Economic Interpretation 


(1926) “…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”

–W.E.B. DuBois, African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000 (Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ed.)
note: I agree with much but not everything I’ve chosen to excerpt on the Socialit subsite. As far as the books as a whole go – as they seem to me – many are very good, plenty are solid, some are mixed, some are less insightful or unfortunate in part. On the whole, in my judgment, the books make some thoughtful and useful exploration of imaginative literature and its relation to society, individuals and social and political change.
1927-1934                                                  EXCERPTS CONTENTS
Bibliography – 1800s to 2003            
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003 
Quick Views    
Social and Political Novel  
Social and Political Literature  












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